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Impearls: 2003-01-26 Archive

Earthdate 2003-01-26

Power-line radiation can't possibly affect humans

A reader ArtD0dger of the blog Iberian Notes, in response to a listing of numerous popular myths, including the one “that electric power lines give off radiation,” in this article (mostly involving a discussion of the capture of Al-Qaeda suspects in Spain, worth reading in its own right), has posted this reply in the blog:

Actually, electric power lines do give off radiation.  In a 60 Hz a.c. line, electrons are being accelerated back and forth at 60 Hz, so they emit electromagnetic radiation at 60 Hz frequency.  This radiation is composed of quanta each having less than a millionth of a millionth as much energy as light photons, and hence having less than a millionth of a millionth as much effect on matter as light.

ArtD0dger's explanation, while correct as far as it goes, does not accomplish its apparent goal of demonstrating that power-line radiation is too weak (“having less than a millionth of a millionth as much effect on matter as light”) to affect people.  This is because even very unenergetic photons can still convey sizable amounts of energy, if there are enough of them!  (Thus, microwaves cook very well despite each individual photon being much less energetic than those of visible light.)

The real reason why radiation off of power lines is incapable of affecting human beings is due to the principle of physics that electromagnetic radiation (“light”) can be “received” by (i.e., can interact with or have a physical influence on) only objects whose size is a substantial fraction of the wavelength of the light (i.e., the “size” of the photons).  The wavelength of 60 Hz radiation is 300,000 km/sec. (186,000 miles/second: the speed of light), divided by 60 Hz (which has units of “per second”), or 5,000 km.  This is about the diameter of the largest moons in the Solar System, Ganymede and Titan; Earth's Moon is a bit less than 3,500 km across.  Thus, it's very unlikely that any individual human has been affected by electromagnetic radiation emanating from power lines.

This does not imply that there can be no effects from the magnetic and electric fields surrounding the immediate vicinity of power lines — though such fields fall off with distance far more rapidly than the inverse-square law that radiation obeys, and diligent medical research has failed to find such effects on human beings.  Indeed, your kitchen toaster emits stronger fields in close proximity to people than power lines tens of meters up in the air are capable of.  Speaking specifically of 60 Hz electromagnetic radiation emitted from power lines, however, such radiation cannot possibly affect anything smaller than continent or Moon size in scale.

(Thanks to Instapundit for the link.)


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